The Christian life is a long progression of letting go of our own wants and desires in order to live in accordance with God’s will. This is a difficult process for all of us. In our Fallen state, we want to grasp at the things of this world that are most pleasing to us. We make plans and when they fall apart we don’t respond well. For many of us, stepping onto the path of sanctification comes with a rude awakening. We didn’t know it would cost us so much. We didn’t know it would mean so much suffering. We forget that we follow a crucified Savior who told us to pick up our Cross and follow Him. The Cross is non-negotiable. We can’t avoid it if we truly want to become saints and dwell in the love of the Most Holy Trinity for all of eternity.
We all have areas of our lives that we haven’t given completely over to God. This is part of the reason fasting is such an indispensable aspect of the spiritual life. It teaches us detachment and to give even the sustenance for our bodies back to God. Lenten penances show us areas of attachment in our lives that need work. Even giving up something small shows us how attached we are to the things of this world. We often forget that all of this is passing away and the more we cling to it, the more difficult the battle becomes.
There are times when God’s plans for our lives are confusing and painful. Anyone who has dealt with a debilitating medical diagnosis, the loss of a loved one, poverty, or any other type of affliction knows how hard it is to understand how God’s ways are from a place of love. How can this agony be good for us? How is this love? There are times in our lives when these questions come up with the deepest places within us. We know this is not how it’s supposed to be, and yet, it is how we must live in the postlapsarian universe.
Suffering forces us to make a choice. It requires us to turn more readily and with total dependence on God or we can fall into bitterness and distance ourselves from Him. This choice comes with each new affliction. The battle is fierce within us as we seek the grace to choose God over the anger and pain we experience in our suffering. If we choose to rely completely on God, then our suffering will in fact be used for good and our love for Him and others will be purified. It’s in our giving back to God that we are set free and filled up with the divine love.
My husband is a good example of this letting go and using suffering for good. He lives with a dangerous chronic illness, but unless you know him or me, you wouldn’t know it. He doesn’t go around complaining about the Cross he’s been given. He jokes about it with people at work and he rests when he needs to, but he doesn’t give into self-pity. He accepts that this is where God is asking Him to go and as hard as it is, my husband works hard to unite His suffering to Christ on the Cross.
Since my husband has chosen to accept what God wants for his life, an unexpected result has happened. He has been a witness to others in his suffering. People marvel at how he responds to his illness. By his witness, my husband shows them how to suffer well through the aid of God’s grace. We all have to learn how to suffer well so that God can work through us. It’s a difficult, but essential lesson in this life. My husband shows the people around him what a life of suffering conformed to Christ looks like and that it comes with joy and even laughter. We are a redeemed people, so we can even laugh and make jokes in the face of death!
Good is being brought about through my husband’s illness. God is able to work in him for others. God is able to use my husband’s suffering for his own conversion and the conversion of the souls around him.
“Suffering must serve for conversion, that is, for the rebuilding of goodness in the subject, who can recognize the divine mercy in this call to repentance. The purpose of penance is to overcome evil, which under different forms lies dormant in man. Its purpose is also to strengthen goodness both in man himself and in his relationships with others and especially with God. But in order to perceive the true answer to the ‘why’ of suffering, we must look to the revelation of divine love, the ultimate source of the meaning of everything that exists. Love is also the richest source of the meaning of suffering, which always remains a mystery; we are conscious of the insufficiency and inadequacy of our explanations. Christ causes us to enter into the mystery and to discover the ‘why’ of suffering, as far as we are capable of grasping the sublimity of divine love.”
Salvifici Dolores 12-13
Suffering is meant to draw us outside of ourselves. It teaches us how to give ourselves away completely to God and to others. Our Heavenly Mother freely accepts everything God asks of her in humble loving obedience, and through her cooperation, God brings about the salvation of mankind in her Son, Jesus Christ. She becomes the Mother of all peoples. She unites her Immaculate Heart to her Son’s Sacred Heart and by enduring His agony, she is opened to expansive love. By her maternal charity and witness, she leads countless souls to Christ.
When we give ourselves away, when we relinquish our grip on the things we want in this life— especially when confronted with suffering—God will unleash goodness through us and around us. We have to stop clinging to our puny plans. We don’t think they are, but our plans are puny because they cannot compare to God’s plans for our lives and the lives of those around us; especially the people He seeks to reach through us. He wants to use us to witness to the power of the divine love where He knows the most good can be done and that often includes suffering.
Lent is a good time to ask God what areas of our lives we are hanging onto and not giving back to Him. There may be areas where we are still angry with God for the suffering He has asked of us. Perhaps we are still hurting or grieving because of areas of our lives that didn’t work out or because we lost someone we love. It’s in these areas where we must ask God to help us to relinquish our wants to Him, so that He can sanctify us and the people around us. Like our Heavenly Mother, we must unite our hearts to His Sacred Heart even though it means enduring the Passion. Once we unite ourselves fully to the Most Holy Trinity, the divine love can be unleashed in our own hearts and radiate out into our Fallen world.